In recent years, South Korea’s arms exports have grown rapidly, especially the T-50/FA-50 “Golden Eagle” advanced trainer/light fighter developed with the assistance of the United States has received orders from many countries, which greatly changed the world’s impression about South Korea’s weapons. However, Philippines recently broke the news that only 5 of the 12 FA-50 fighter jets that South Korea exported to the Philippines were able to take off normally after a few years. Such a poor rate of delivery – is the quality of South Korean military aircraft too bad or is there any other reason?
The Philippine Inquirer said on September 29 that in order to improve the combat capability of the Philippine Air Force, the country introduced 12 FA-50 light fighter jets from South Korea from 2015 to 2017. At that time, the Philippine Air Force stated that due to its aging, the previously equipped US-made F-5 series fighter jets could no longer take off for combat, so the FA-50s imported from South Korea were the country’s re-acquired jet fighters. South Korea says the FA-50 has clear advantages in maintenance and upkeep and can help train Filipino pilots to transition to more advanced multirole fighter jets such as the $2.4 billion US-made F-16 fighter jet.
However, Armed Forces of the Philippines Deputy Commander Arthur Cordura admitted during a congressional budget hearing that more than half of the 12 FA-50 light fighters brought in by the Philippine Air Force are currently out of service due to maintenance difficulties and delayed delivery of spare parts.
“Only five FA-50 fighter jets are actually able to take off when needed, which means the availability rate is about 40 percent.”
Cordura further explained: “Two of the seven fighter jets that cannot take off are undergoing maintenance and will be operational as soon as the fourth quarter. The other fighter jets are waiting for spare parts…”.
He said that the spread of the epidemic has led to further delays in the delivery of spare parts, and the low availability rate of the FA-50 is also related to frequent participation in the fight against the rebels-excessive use frequency has led to strain damage to aircraft parts.
The Philippine “5th News” channel said that the current situation of the Philippine Air Force is actually more serious.
“A Philippine Air Force official who declined to be named for security reasons said that only 3 of the 12 FA-50 light fighters are still operational. The logistical issues made it difficult for Air Force maintenance personnel to replace damaged parts.”
“The problem now is that logistics and maintenance are not keeping pace,” said the Philippine Air Force official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, adding that most FA-50s have been put aside. “It’s not about the skills of the maintainers, it’s about the logistics needed to maintain the aircraft. It’s like when some parts in a car fail, they have to be replaced. We’ve asked South Korea for spare parts, but they have not arrived yet.”
Philippine Air Force spokesman Castillo also said that the limited number of available fighter jets has affected the country’s air force operations: “We are able to conduct external defense operations, but the capacity is really limited.” She acknowledged that due to maintenance problems, some FA-50s planes were forced to be grounded, but she also declined to say how many FA-50s are currently in operation for safety reasons. “I don’t have the authority to reveal the exact numbers.”
She also said it was impossible to say when the fighter jets would return to service. “It depends on when the aircraft manufacturer, Korea Aviation Industry Co., will deliver the spare parts to the Philippines. We have submitted the required spare parts and can only wait for delivery.”
While the Philippine Air Force tried to put it lightly, the country’s media and netizens were less polite in their criticism of the South Korean fighter jets. The author believes that the latter’s anger is not without reason. As a new type of fighter that has just been delivered for a few years, it should be in a stage when the running-in period has passed and the overall state is in good condition. There should be no serious logistical maintenance problems in normal use, nor will it lead to large areas being forced to stop due to maintenance problems. In fact, the parts that need to be shipped from South Korea for replacement also prove from the side that the failure of the aircraft is by no means a general maintenance problem, and it is likely that a key component has a design flaw.
Similar situations are not uncommon for South Korean weapons and equipment. For example, the mass-produced model of the K2 main battle tank developed by South Korea tried to replace similar German equipment with domestic engines and gearboxes.
Therefore, as one of the earliest overseas users of the FA-50, it is not surprising that after the Philippines introduced this South Korean light fighter, it “stepped on thunder” in its use. In addition to the possible design flaws of the aircraft, whether it is not suitable for the tropical high temperature, high humidity and high salt environment in the Philippines may also be one of the incentives. But in any case, South Korea’s advocacy of the FA-50’s low cost, low logistics and maintenance requirements has been punctured.
What makes the Philippines anxious is that if even the relatively simple FA-50 cannot effectively maintain operation, it will obviously be more difficult to purchase more sophisticated US-made F-16, Swedish “Gripen” and other main fighters in the future.
So is the Philippine Air Force helpless? The author suggests that if the Philippines has the courage to reject the temptation of the United States, should it consider Chinese models? In terms of performance, China’s aviation industry has long been able to provide various levels of fighter jets to meet different needs; in terms of experience, a variety of Chinese fighter jets have already served in tropical regions; in terms of actual combat, Chinese-made fighter jets also have rich combat experience.
The most typical example is the service experience of Chinese fighter jets in Sri Lanka. As a South Asian country with a similar environment to the Philippines, the Sri Lankan Air Force can find many models exported by the Chinese aviation industry, including J-7 fighter jets, Chujiao-6 and K-8 trainers, Y-12 transport aircraft and Xinzhou-60 regional airliners, etc, all types of aircrafts are almost all-encompassing. And for the first time in the history of China’s domestic air-to-air missiles, it achieved a record in air combat, which was also achieved in Sri Lanka. The Sri Lankan Air Force also used trainer planes and transport planes as bombers to launch air strikes against the LTTE, which can be said to maximize the use of various Chinese-made aircraft. During the Sri Lankan civil war, the capital Colombo was not damaged in a large area thanks to the protection provided by the J-7 fighter jets.
Therefore, it can be said that the configuration of the Chinese fighter jets of the Sri Lanka Air Force can be used as a template, and several more advanced models can be strengthened according to the requirements of the Philippines, so as to create an air force that is more suitable for the actual needs of the Philippines. It’s just that international arms trade needs to consider far more than weapon performance, but more to do with international relations. At present, it may be difficult for the Philippines to get rid of the influence of the United States and move closer to China in equipment procurement, so it can only continue to use South Korean and American military aircraft that are not acclimatized to the environment.